ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Authorities have ordered foreign workers with the Save the Children aid group to leave the country, after alleging ties between the group and a Pakistani doctor enlisted by the CIA to help track down Osama bin Laden.
A spokesman for Save the Children's offices in Pakistan, Ghulam Qadri, said Thursday that the order was issued by the Interior Ministry. Authorities had previously accused Save the Children of helping to make a connection between Dr. Shakeel Afridi and U.S. officials, who was searching for someone to assist in confirming Bin Laden's whereabouts in the military city of Abbottabad, a two-hour drive north of Islamabad.
Save the Children has repeatedly denied playing any role in facilitating Afridi's involvement with the CIA.
The organization said it will continue to work in the country using its 2,000 Pakistani employees. The expulsion order applies to six foreign staff members of Save the Children.
Afridi was picked up by Pakistani intelligence agents shortly after U.S. commandos killed Bin Laden in May 2011. The doctor had organized a hepatitis B vaccination campaign in Abbottabad as a ruse to secure DNA evidence from Bin Laden's residence. Afridi was not able to get the samples, but U.S. officials have said he provided information that helped locate Bin Laden.
He was held on charges of colluding with a foreign intelligence agency, but later was tried before a tribal jirga in northwest Pakistan on separate charges of having links with a Pakistani militant group. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison on the militancy charge. His family is appealing the conviction.
Save the Children works in more than 50 countries, providing relief to children and families affected by disasters and civil conflict. It has had a presence in Pakistan for more than 30 years and was a key aid provider when massive floods swept through the country in 2010, affecting more than 20 million people and causing billions of dollars in damage.
The organization was one of a host of Western non-governmental organizations that endured a ramp-up in scrutiny from Pakistan's intelligence community following the disclosure of Afridi's vaccination ruse. Many such groups reported difficulties in getting visas renewed for their Pakistan-based workers, while others said they were under surveillance by Pakistani authorities.
Western NGO officials say Pakistani authorities have made it much harder for them to do their jobs, but they also have criticized the CIA for using humanitarian work as a cover for intelligence gathering.
Officials in Washington continue to seek Afridi’s release, arguing that he should be viewed in Pakistan as a hero who helped hunt down the world's most wanted man. In Pakistan, however, Afridi is seen by many as a traitor who collaborated with a foreign intelligence agency. A governmental commission that investigated the Abbottabad raid has recommended that Afridi be tried on treason charges.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: A private Pakistani security guard looks out from the Save the Children office in Islamabad on Thursday. Credit: Farooq Naeem / AFP/Getty Images